Effective communication is not only important when sharing your research with others. Its objective is to assist collaboration, to make science more applicable and scientists more sensitive to the concerns and values of others. (Srinivas 2017)
Climate change is a huge, complex problem that no one can solve alone, and tackling it means scientists across disciplines have to work together and to understand each other. But that can be difficult for many reasons: different culture and traditions, differences in terminology (or the same terminology but different meanings), or expertises that don't overlap much, to name a few. A social scientist, an ecologist, and a meteorologist might study climate change, but from very different perspectives. In order to help a city planner create green spaces to reduce the urban heat island effect and keep cities livable for an aging population, all need to seamlessly work together.
In the U.S., part of the solution to this have been boundary organizations like the USGS Climate Adaptation Science Center network, NOAA's Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessment teams, and the USDA Climate Hubs, that work with natural and cultural resource managers, cities and communities, and farmers and ranchers, to help them adapt to increasing more severe droughts, more unpredictable seasons, and more extreme heat, due to climate change.
For those that don't have one of these centers around (although, they do cover a big chunk of the U.S.), a colleague and I wanted to help people get started. Cait Rottler, a researcher at the USDA Southern Plains Climate Hub in El Reno, Oklahoma, and I hosted a 2-hour workshop for researchers and stakeholders to become better collaborators. We were at the annual meeting of the Society for Range Management, a meeting of rangeland and ecosystem researchers, private sector companies, ranchers, Native American Tribes, and agency staff from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Department of Agriculture.
There are many barriers that keep people from working together, for example our limited understanding of on-the-ground decision making (which I wrote about here, here, and here). In this workshop, we wanted to focus on the language barrier that exists within the research community and between researchers and decision makers.
On the left is a quote from a paper about DNA analyses on African skeletons to understand ancient human migration in Africa, published this January in Nature. On the right is a quote about this study from a news article in the science section of the New York Times.
If you're like me, you found the text on the right easier to understand. The text on the left is clearly written for experts like anthropologists, geneticists, and bio-molecular engineers (the research fields of the authors). The text on the right is for an interested, but non-expert audience. It is less specific but uses fewer technical terms and more general phrases that a broader audience can more easily understand. Technical language can convey a concept or message very efficiently, but only to a small group of experts. In research, we often work with peers in our field and thus communicate in ways that exclude a broader audience. Our workshop was intended to help researchers and stakeholders communicate to each other.
Comparing scientific papers and popular science articles raises another issue: how do we present our work. The classic IMRAD structure (Introduction-Methods-Results-And-Discussion) used in scientific journals everywhere is not how we should communicate our work to peers, stakeholders, or indeed anyone.
In our workshop, Cait and I used the Compass Message Box concept to illustrate how research can be reframed for a range of audiences, to describe:
Here is what my research at Texas A&M University may look like, reframed for a broader audience. My advisor, David Briske, our colleague Matt Reeves (U.S. Forest Service in Montana), and I study the impacts of climate change on cattle production in the Great Plains, specifically the consequences of more frequent and intense droughts on grasslands, through the lense of ecology (David and Matt) and a climate science (me). Thanks to other colleagues (John Ritten at the University of Wyoming and Amber Campbell at Kansas State University) we also looked into the economic impacts on ranching and into societal challenges of adapting range management to climate change. In short:
Quite a mouthful! Let's try to look at it in a different way. Most importantly: Who is our audience? Problem, solution, and benefits are different depending on who we talk to, even if the broader issue is the same. Discussing drought with a rancher is very different from discussing drought with an engineer ... or a state legislator.
Next, I broke down our research into the five segments of the Compass Message Box.
What might be the most relevant issue for legislators? Why should they care? Drought has an economic impact on ranching, and with that an economic impact on their state budget and the welfare of their residents.
What are the concrete problems? Clear language is essential, and some context, like comparing future droughts to significant historic ones, could describe the problem more clearly. Depending on the audience, we could adjust our wording to include or exclude certain phrases, such as "climate change". By now, though, many farmers and ranchers recognize climate change in their operations, talk about it, and want answers. So, well-informed legislators (or their staffers) even in conservative states might be okay with talking about it, too.
Now to the consequences, why it should matter to the legislator. Note that the language is more science-y, but because of the context we created previously, most of this should be clear. I focus on economics, because cattle ranching is a multi-billion dollar industry in Texas, and I imagine representatives are most concerned about economic impacts and tax expenses on livestock insurance or flood damage, before thinking about protecting natural habitats and endangered species (which we mention later).
What are my suggestions for solutions? This needs to be phrased carefully to not appear like I'm the expert on this (which we're not). I am merely suggesting solutions that could help the problem from my perspective. Phrasing solutions should take place with a team spirit in mind - I want to help the legislator and their team solve the problem, and I acknowledge that other interests might conflict with mine, and I might not get it my way.
How does all this work benefit Texas and Texans? I try to point out how my proposed solutions can help reduce future costs due to droughts, the problem I stated initially (also, droughts are more concrete than climate change, so I use that) and what else might benefit.
This was only one example we gave our workshop participants. Not all research is relevant for legislators, but might be relevant for or could benefit from input by engineers, sociologists, ecologists, economists, city planners, or policy makers on local, federal, or international levels. What we aimed for was to inspire our participants by the multiple ways their research could be enriched and expanded, and give them some tools for how to do that.
Since this was a workshop and not a lecture, now was our audience's turn to apply some of what they just learned.
Taking a page from a workshop for scientists about communicating with the media that I had hosted a few years ago, we had planned an interactive practice session. We split our audience into groups of three, such that – ideally – no two people in one group knew each other (or at least didn't work in the same field). Then we gave assignments to each of them:
Person 1: Ask person 2 general questions and more specific follow-ups about their work and their professional background, challenges they are facing and how to overcome them
Person 2: Answer these questions in a way that uses as little jargon and technical language as possible
Person 3: Observe the other two and recognize what they do right and wrong
After about 4 minutes, we asked each group to wrap up and for person 3 to briefly share their observations with the other two in their group. Then everyone rotated into a new role, and we started over. We rotated 3 times, then re-shuffled all groups and rotated another 3 times, so that everyone was in each role twice, but each time with different partners. If we had more time, we could have repeated this process again.
During the practice part, Cait and I went around the room and listened in on how everyone was doing. Some participants really struggled finding the right words and cutting down on jargon (ranchers and federal agency officials as much as researchers). Cait and I were worried about what we were putting people through, whether our approach actually made sense, or if this activity would actually deter them from working in interdisciplinary groups, given how hard it.
Thankfully, that didn't happen.
Participants really liked the workshop and thanked us for putting this together. Most agreed, that yes, it was difficult to talk across disciplinary boundaries, and because of that they rarely do it. However, this workshop pushed them out of their comfort zone and to talking across disciplinary boundaries. It also helped them see their work and the value it has from someone else's perspective and understood how their work was important to others, which felt very motivating. Not least, one person said, and others agreed, that they found new potential collaborators in researchers they normally wouldn't talk to, but probably should.